Patrons of writing and teaching: My grandfather, Ted Snoek

Ted Snoek, dubbed in a local tabloid as “World’s Fattest Baby,” at 9 months old.

Ordinarily, I reserve the “patrons” entries for divine and/or fictional influences on my writing and teaching. But today I want to write about a real, living person, because today is my grandfather’s 90th birthday.

My grandfather, Ted Snoek, has had a profound influence on my professional life. His father died fairly young, when my grandfather was only a teenager, so my grandfather had to leave high school early and head to sea to help support the family. The sea became his career, as it was for his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, and he never managed to return to school. But Ted Snoek made the sea his education, and he is a vastly intelligent man.

People like to talk about “the school of life,” but few of us really know what that phrase means. Some people (academics, mostly, and yes, I’m an academic) tend to use the phrase dismissively. But I know what value experience can offer a person — how much education an intelligent person can receive through simply reading and paying attention and thinking critically. Our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, was largely self-taught until he became a lawyer, and my grandfather is similarly self-educated. In fact, I’ve often likened my grandfather to Lincoln — they share a similar compassion, a similar deep spirituality, a similar wisdom and solid judgment–and, of course, Ted Snoek is the same height as Lincoln was, a fact I dwelled on a lot as a kid gazing upward at my towering, larger-than-life, sea-captain grandfather.

Ted Snoek and me in 1979.

But Ted Snoek also values formal education tremendously, and he has long been one of my strongest supporters in my own education. In fact, it was my paternal grandparents who urged me to attend Schreiner College (now University) after high school — they were the ones who took me for my first campus visit. (My grandfather still maintains ties with Schreiner’s current president, who attended church with my grandfather back in southeast Texas.)

In fact, my grandparents are both so passionate about education that when they lived in southeast Texas, they frequently enrolled in continuing ed courses at the local college. I used to think I was strange coming home from college with tidbits from history class, writing exercises I wanted my family to participate in, or group meditation sessions with my mother and sister based on techniques I’d learned in my Taoism course. But then my grandparents turned up and started massaging our feet, and when we asked why, they said it was homework — they were taking a reflexology class.

And then there are the stories.

Effie and Ted Snoek, outside their new home in Boerne, TX, summer 2009.

I am convinced that my father and I are both natural storytellers because my grandfather is a natural storyteller. All during my trip to the Netherlands (from which the Snoek family came to the US 115 years ago), I posted Writer’s Notebook entries that were, in fact, my grandfather’s written account of his father’s life. Ted Snoek’s own stories from the sea are no less exciting, and reading or hearing them aloud, I know this is where my desire to tell stories comes from. (The family tendency toward embellishment is probably the root cause of my interest in fiction.)

So here’s to Capt. Ted B. Snoek, my grandfather. Happy 90th, Grandpa!

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